The war-torn lovers theme is one of the oldest genres in movie history. The romantic irony of these films is that while they try to be romantic, their predictable formula is a turn off.
Joe Wright’s new spellbinding film Atonement is different. Sure, lovers fall, people get hurt, there are problems to overcome, but the way Wright conducts his film is like a great, flowing opera, poignant and beautiful.
The first act, which takes place in a lavish, all-too-rich, country home, plays like a great introduction to an Altman film. Young, aspiring writer, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has a crush on the son of the family housekeeper Robbie (James McAvoy). So when she witnesses Robbie and her older, headstrong sister Cecilla (Kiera Knightely) in a tense moment, Briony assumes the worst. And so will you.
Jealousy soon floods Briony’s fragile heart as the day develops into one confusing spectacle after another. By the end of the night, Briony has accused Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit just to spite him and her sister.
Years later, during the early years of World War II, each character is still grossly affected from that one night. Robbie is a soldier in the war, abandoned and trying to find his way to a base, Cecilla is a nurse in England as is Briony, who is finally coming to terms with what she did and the lie she told.
The beauty of this film first rests on the shoulders of the actors. McAvoy dives deep into Robbie’s tortured sole. His eyes tense with regret, his words spoken carefully with conviction. Knightely - who should've won the best actress Oscar two years ago for her fresh take on Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Wrights first film - solidifies that her talent exceeds far beyond her classical beauty. Each of her scenes are powerful and demanding, she keeps the film afloat with her half smiles and undying love.
But it’s Ronan who steals the show. The actress only plays Briony at age 13, but she’s the one that will stay etched in your mind. Her puzzled face will have you begging to know what she is thinking. She accurately portrays the confusion that a child’s imagination can attain. Her performance is flawless.
All credit to Wright for formulating this marvelous picture. Working with a fresh script from Christopher Hampton (based on Ian McEwan’s novel) Wright frequently gives you the same scene multiple times, seen through the eyes of different people. Each time this is done, something clicks in our heads, a startling revelation that we didn’t see coming.
Wright fills his film with technical marvels as well. A curious, developing score by Dario Marianelli is like nothing you’ve ever heard. Using ferocious punches from a typewriter to change a scene. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is one for the books. Swooping in and out of a room, fusing light to catch only what we need to see, and filling the film with long, extended shots. None better than when Robbie walks along a bombed out, bloody beach that has just seen the hellish effects of war. For five minutes we are taken on a horrific ride seen through the eyes of a soldier. This shot rivals any other extended, tracking shot that you’ve seen.
Some people may have a problem with the final scenes of the film. And although I’ll never tell what happens, the final moments of Atonement encapsulate the essence of the picture. Vanessa Redgrave, in her 10 minutes on screen, will break your heart. It is a brilliant performance with one of the best character arches in recent memory.
Atonement is a powerful, refreshing take on a tired genre. Its bold and beautiful style will stay with you long after its shocking conclusion. A serious contender for best picture and one of the absolute, best films of 2007. A+